By Jamey Keaten

Would you willingly live like a prisoner for a day or two — or four? Hundreds of people have jumped at just such a chance in the Swiss city of Zurich, volunteering to take part in an open house of sorts for a new jail before the facility accepts its first inmates.

Details of the March 24-27 test run are still being worked out. But Zurich corrections authorities said Thursday they received 832 applications for an as-yet undecided number of spots.

The selected volunteers, who must live locally and be at least 18 years old, are in store for an experience that borders on a reality TV plot when they enter “Gefaegnis Zurich West” — Zurich West Prison — to test the pre-trial detention and jail services.

The facility, located west of the city’s main train station, is expected to house up to 124 people who are under provisional arrest and to have 117 places for individuals held in pre-trial detention.

Their temporary stand-ins won’t have to pay or get paid to participate in the jail's dress rehearsal, and they will be treated like inmates in some regards: testing food, undergoing intake procedures, walking the yard, etc.

The volunteers can't bring cellphones or other electronic devices inside. Every participant will require security clearance, and need to undergo checks similar to airport screenings. Strip-searches upon entry, however, will be optional.

The stunt doubles also will receive a “safe word” they can give the staff to bail out immediately if they get cold feet or start to crack under the conditions.

Next month's trial run will enable corrections officials to test the jail's capacity, services and operations, as well as to review their cooperation and communication with other authorities, such as police and prosecutors.

They also hope the drill will help clear up what they consider misconceptions about how guards, wardens and other employees operate in such facilities.

"There are so many penny dreadfuls about life in prison and about the demanding work the prison staff does every day that we wanted to use this opportunity to show how we really work — and how much professionalism and experience is needed to work with inmates," Marc Eiermann, head of prison management at Zurich West Prison, said in an email.

He was referring to a mostly 19th-century genre of sensationalist crime literature known as “penny dreadfuls” that helped caricature prison life.

Elena Tankovski, a spokeswoman for the Zurich region's corrections and rehabilitation services department, said, by phone: "A lot of our wardens, they have a lot of social skills. They know how treat people right. It’s more like they want to be on the same eye level with them (the inmates) .... They are actually more a carer than a guard.”

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